PEEL BACK THE SKIN GREY MATTER PRESS; 1 EDITION (6 JUN. 2016)
For all the largesse of independent horror markets; the embarrassment of riches (not to mention the sewage one has to trawl through to find them), certain forms of horror are still somewhat difficult to come by. This is largely by dint of their nature; subjects which necessarily alienate, which will only ever appeal to a small but eternally hungering demographic, are always going to be somewhat endangered species; made more for the love of their art and subject than any more commercial ambition.
Those who seek genuine disturbance, to catch their breaths or clutch at their stomachs; to have to put the book down or turn away from the monitor, to compose themselves after what they have just read...a demographic that is surprisingly small but extremely vocal amongst horror fans; those who hunger for a return to eras when even mainstream horror operated at a state of high invention, when the bookshelves and cinema were crammed to collapse with the genuinely distressing, the repellent, the disturbing...rare, rare specimens, in the current market, and rarer still to find those of any remarkable quality.
There is an art to unsettling the reader; arguably more problematic in the written word than more immediate, multi-faceted mediums: cinema and TV have the benefit of not having to cushion the subject matter with back-story, framing or description; distress or disturbance can be evoked via a simple series of images, even a single still-frame, a discrepancy between sound-track and visuals.
The writer must pluck more subtly at their instrument, guiding the reader to that point of vulnerability and suggestion, setting the parameters in which atmosphere and engagement might swell, before delivering the image, the situation, the moment, that will steal breath, shudder the senses.
It's an art that requires so much in the way of practice, and one that few, even amongst the enshrined, regularly achieve.
Peel Back the Skin is one of those rarities; a selection of stories that not only consistently succeed, but do so in such varied and interesting ways.
Technically, every story is refined to a crystalline cut, their prose, their styles, their pacing and rhythms, absolutely pristine. But, beyond that, every story is inspired and engaging; their core subjects, their conceits, their themes, all macabrely glorious, foregoing wryness and parody in favour of earnest efforts to distress, upset and offend in the most welcome, masochistically delicious manner.
From Jonathon Maberry's Mystic, in which a man whom the murdered dead seek out to testify -and perhaps avenge- the brutality done to them, to my personal favourite from the entire collection: Charles Austin Muir's Party Animal, in which a man in mourning at the death of his girlfriend turns to obscure and esoteric means (glyphs and symbols) to plumb his own fraying psyche, discovering the unwelcome truths that lie in wait there, these stories are not only extremely well crafted on a technical level, but also uniquely memorable in a way that leaves impressions like scars behind the eyes.
Each serves as a gradual wade out into the depths of human sub-conscious; a trawling of the blackest, most polluted realms of our collective soul. The fearlessness with which the authors present extremely unsettling concepts is matched only by the subtlety of their rendering; the moments of genuine shock, of repulsion, having so much more in the way of impact owing to their framing:
This is not a collection that deals in puerile thrills or cheap shocks; the instances of violence, of mutilation, of abuse and torture, all have genuine weight, especially since many of them are committed by characters the reader has been manipulated into identifying, even empathising, with.
That, perhaps, is the most deliciously seditious and transgressive element of the collection; the manner in which it deliberately inverts or upsets reader expectation. The general effect is of having been toyed with; soiled, violated, which is a wonderful thing for any horror story or collection to achieve.
We come to understand the killers, the fanatics, the crazed, the nihilistic; we see through their experience, through the tragedy and abuse of their lives, how they could come to commit atrocities that they previously would never have considered. It's an extremely enlightened perspective, especially in an age where so many of their contemporaries are mired in synthetic, Freudian motivations or lack anything like such analysis.
These are people driven to the point of breaking, by circumstance, by ingrained factors often far, far beyond their control: from Fathers who unwittingly murder their children in an effort to stop them crying to those who realise that the loved ones they are in mourning for are their victims, murdered in moments of temporary insanity, by accident; out of religious fanaticism, an inability to accept the decay of love.
The collection consists of stories of raw humanity, strapped down, dissected, flayed open; every dark urge, every violent, controlling, tribal and sadistic inclination exposed.
This is, of course, simultaneously an enormous strength and a potentially crippling weakness; the situations and imagery within the stories may prove far too near the knuckle for some, especially for those whose experience they might chime with or those that favour something lighter, less consequential in their reading matter.
The collection is clearly aware of this, however; consciously catering to the small but ravenous audience who will appreciate its resonance.
These are not stories that seek to console or comfort; do not expect the murderers to be granted justice, the demons to be exorcised or any semblance of balance to be re-established at their conclusions: the violent, the deranged, the self mutilating...they prosper, here; this is their kingdom; a red and ragged state in which extremity is the status quo, where every more and taboo of civilisation is peeled away, leaving behind something flayed, grinning and monstrously honest.
Graham Masterton's The Greatest Gift also deserves especial mention for being one of the few short stories in recent years that has elicited winces; that has required the book to be closed and set down for a moment (a story of romantic obsession and monstrously graphic self-mutilation, presented by their subject as something beautiful and wondrous). This is what Peel Back the Skin exults and celebrates in; making the reader so uncomfortable, yet simultaneously so engaged, that they cannot help but react with physical repulsion, with actual shudders of disturbance. Again, any work that markets itself as horror and provokes such reactions deserves kudos, as it is a rare, rare thing.
As the collection's title suggests, part of its over-arching theme is involving the reader to a degree that other works might not; the stories and the atrocities they describe acting as stark reflections of our own, darker urges; the moments of unguarded fury, hatred, resentment; the despair that can drive us to the deepest acts of nihilism. That central conceit (consistently emphasised by most of its contents) will determine the degree of enjoyment that individual readers derive from the collection: for some, the trenchant, “triggering” subjects may prove too much; repellent to the point of alienating, especially given how brazenly they are presented. Others may find the degree of introspection the collection demands somewhat too demanding; the book probing deeply into sublimated realms, dredging up corpses that the reader hoped long-buried.
For those of us that relish the experience of violation; of being opened up and raked through, there is little better.